“This isn’t working,” said the voice inside my head. “You’re not doing it right. If you paint over it now, it’s just gonna peel again in a year or two, and you’ll have to repaint it. You’re wasting your time.”
“You’re right,” I thought. “I’m really frustrated, and I just want to quit.”
This is part of a discouraging conversation I had with myself while standing 3 feet up on a ladder this past weekend. I was trying to scrape chipped and peeling paint off the ceiling in our three-season room. This is a room that’s attached to the sweet, little country home that my partner Ellen and I rented a few months ago.
We call it the sunroom, because it’s big and bright with windows all the way around. It has a fireplace and woodstove that – according to the landlord – keeps it toasty and warm even when the weather turns cold outside. It’s a great space that we plan to use as a combination workout room and sanctuary to relax and entertain guests.
Before any of that can happen though, the room needs some work. The walls and windows need to be cleaned. The concrete floor is gray and dingy, and we plan to strip it down and repaint it a rich, dark-brown color. Likewise, the tiled ceiling is old and dirty with peeling paint that has to be scraped off before we repaint it a creamy, off-white color.
It’s a big project that would likely cost a couple thousand dollars if we hired someone else to do it. Since that’s not in our budget, we decided to do the work ourselves. So, this past weekend, we put on some great music, and went to work on the sunroom. Ellen started cleaning the walls and windows while I tackled the peeling paint on the ceiling.
Things went smoothly at first. Much of the paint came off easily with a stiff brush. Then things got a little harder. I had to get up on a ladder and use a paint scraper to remove the paint that the brush didn’t get. It was slow and tedious work that eventually led to the discouraging inner dialogue with which I opened this article.
“This isn’t working. You’re not doing it right. If you paint over it now, it’s just gonna peel again in a year or two, and you’ll have to repaint it. You’re wasting your time. The sunroom will never turn out the way you want it.”
Fortunately, I persisted through this toxic self-talk and did the best I could with the ceiling. Still, as I reflect on how I talked to myself up on that ladder, I realize it wasn’t very kind.
I wonder, if someone I love was up on that ladder, would I have spoken that way to them? If it was Ellen or my daughter Haley working feverishly to accomplish her goal, would I have been so negative, judgmental and defeatist when things got tough for them?
Of course not.
Instead, I would have noticed their struggle and done all I could to help them move through it. I would have been kind and compassionate. I would have told them they’re doing fine and encouraged them to just keep moving forward.
I would have treated them that way because I love them.
“We all have the tendency to believe self-doubt and self-criticism, but listening to this voice never gets us closer to our goals. Instead, try on the point of view of a mentor or good fiend who believes in you, wants the best for your, and will encourage you when you feel discouraged.”
Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct
“Self-compassion,” writes Dr. Kristen Neff, “involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.”
According to Dr. Neff and others who study self-compassion, while it’s fairly easy for most of us to feel compassion toward others, it can be difficult to apply the same to ourselves. Which is a shame, because research shows that self-compassion offers several benefits, including:
- Higher Motivation
- Less Anxiety and Depression
- Greater Happiness in Life
As you go about your week, I invite you to look for times when you might practice some self-compassion. More specifically:
1. Be Mindful – Notice, without judgment, when you are being self-critical, beating yourself up for making mistakes, or assaulting yourself with discouraging self-talk.
2. Remember Your Common Humanity – You are not alone. We all struggle, fail or feel inadequate from time to time. It’s part of the human experience.
3. Practice Self-Kindness – Rather than self-criticism, treat yourself with warmth and understanding when you struggle, fail or feel inadequate. Recognize that being imperfect and experiencing difficulties is inevitable, so be gentle with yourself rather than getting angry, frustrated or discouraged.
As you and I both learn to be more compassionate toward ourselves, I have no doubt that our lives will improve dramatically. I know I’ll have more fun working on the sunroom this coming weekend.
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”
Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion